REVIEWS: vol 7, issue 1

Before I was a Critic I was a Human Being 
By Amy Fung (Book*hug)

Reviewed by Vinaya Gopaal 

Amy Fung’s debut work is a collection of personal essays loosely strung together to describe her observations of Canada’s identity myths. Drawing from her own immigrant background, having moved to Canada with her mother and sisters from Hong Kong in 1988, Fung mines her experience as an art critic and writer to reflect upon the goings-on of multicultural Canada. 

The book’s narrative is made up of short anecdotal accounts that challenge the reader to accompany Fung on a journey focused on unravelling national fallacies. The author employs a self-critical and modest perspective when detailing how even after thirty years of living in Canada she does not “feel Canadian,” nor does she feel “wholly Chinese.”

From arriving in Canada with no historical knowledge of the country, to making her way through manipulated knowledge catered to the settler agenda, Fung describes her journey as a series of learning and unlearning processes. The essays also make occasional reference to her mother, Cho Kei, offering an insightful take on the generational chasms found among immigrant families.

Fung traverses Canada to reveal the identity and sense of each region. She is frank about her own early misgivings concerning narratives of White Settler Colonialism, and makes several poignant references to the continued injustices faced by Indigenous communities. Some of the most touching pieces in Fung’s collection are reflections on her deep encounters with depression. She creates a haunting motif about the High Level Bridge in Edmonton related to thoughts of suicide. On leaving Edmonton—home to a young Amy Fung—she writes: “Once you find the courage to leave Edmonton, there was no turning back. The High Level Bridge has been a one-way street for decades.” 

Amy Fung’s essays raise urgent questions about the way in which Canada has positioned itself as a welcoming nation of all peoples. Growing up as an immigrant, she comments on how Whiteness and colonization take away the pride of belonging to a cultural background that is deemed different, a reality rooted in the racist notion that Europeans were worthiest of the “Great White North” myth, which led to the exclusion and erasure of Indigenous people and their rights. 

Fung’s experience as a critic and her poetic creativity come through clearly in her writing. She crafts a wonderful summary of the Canada 150 celebrations and critiques how they drew people to a cathartic place where they admitted: “we didn’t know.” She follows with a hard-hitting section that reveals a kind of acquittal by non-knowledge. 

She writes: 

We didn’t know that so many children suffered horrific abuses We didn’t know they killed all of their hunting sled We didn’t know families were broken inside out We didn’t know about intergenerational trauma We didn’t know about addictions We didn’t know about mental illnesses...

But now we do Now we do Now we do know We know Some of us knew Now we know We All Know We Knew.

Fung has brought a vivid and much-needed newcomer voice to the ongoing conversation about Canada’s identity. In doing so, the author has invited readers to think deeply about national myths that we seem to be aware of but seldom come to terms with. 

Coconut Dreams 
By Derek Mascarenhas (Book*hug)

Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Derek Mascarenhas’s debut collection of linked short stories, Coconut Dreams, follows the Pinto family across a span of generations from 1946 to 2006. The book opens with “The Call of the Bell,” an enigmatic ghost story that begins with the birth of Felix Pinto, who is born in 1946 at a cemetery during a funeral. His mother dies during childbirth, and in moments of despair later in the story, his father blames him for his mother’s death. But the Goan family’s life is not all doom and gloom as the inciting event suggests. Felix makes friends, rebels, and is drawn to a zamblam tree and the house at the top of the hill, both of which are said to be haunted. 

In an assured and controlled voice, Mascarenhas crafts the spell of narrative through the knit of family and community. During the childbirth scene that opens the novel and later, when Felix visits the house at the top of the hill, each character—even the deceptively minor ones—turns the story on its head. From the bullock cart owner, Diego, to the corrupt priest, Father Salvador, the superstitious current that arises through their dialogue and allegory captures the syncretic texture of the Pinto’s lives and experiences, so that when they drink fenny or eat kadio bodio, it feels specific and true.

The eponymous story that closes the collection follows Aiden Pinto, a first-generation Goan-Canadian who visits his uncle in Goa and admits: “Four days in Goa nearly killed me.” His friends in engineering at university refer to him as a “coconut”: “brown on the outside, white on the inside,” as he explains. An enterprising Goan boy who sells him a bracelet simply refers to him as “Canada,” with a sense of humour that is as welcoming as it is cringe-worthy.

Aiden is so Canadian that he catches the bug to visit India after reading Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and upon arrival in Goa, he says with touching earnestness to his uncle: “I’m ready to explore Goa now.” His exploration leads him to fall off the back of his uncle’s scooter, speak with a snake, and ride the train while his uncle runs beside it in farewell. These tropes are cinematic enough for Bollywood or Hollywood since they are familiar markers of “Indianness,” but in Mascarenhas’s hands, what could’ve been romanticized Indo-nostalgic moments are only the bittersweet texture of the lives of locals that are his extended family, whom he returns to for an initiation into himself after leaving university in Canada without a degree and a girlfriend.

Mascarenhas’s fiction straddles its influences the way its first-generation Goan-Canadian protagonists experience their lives, where home is many places at once and “family” means story, beauty, and trouble. Coconut Dreams signals the arrival of a new Canadian voice that is singular, necessary, and hard to forget. 

By Andrea Dorfman (Firefly Books)

Reviewed by Amy Kenny

In Flawed, Andrea Dorfman is uncertain about a lot of things—feelings for new boyfriend, thoughts on plastic surgery and her (she thinks) oversized nose. The book itself seems likewise uncertain about a lot of things, including its intended audience. 

Flawed is a graphic memoir based on Dorfman’s Emmy-nominated short film of the same name. Both chronicle Dorfman’s new relationship with Dave, a plastic surgeon, whose job makes Dorfman uncomfortable —she doesn’t know if she can date someone who works every day to change the way people look, particularly when Dorfman’s own looks, the reader learns, have been a source of anxiety.

Officially, Flawed bills itself as a book for adolescents. And it could be. But it could also be for kids and it could also be for adults. Somehow, this literary limbo doesn’t make it work for all ages. Rather, it doesn’t anchor itself anywhere solidly enough to truly deliver.  

The single-image-per-page illustration screams children’s book. The lines are solid and simple and the bright, primary colours make it feel like you’re eating (delicious) citrus candy with your eyes.  

But the subject matter splits its audience. On the one hand, it’s a book about a cross-country romance between two adults. On the other, it’s about the awkwardness of adolescence and how Dorfman came to decide that her nose was her major physical flaw.

In interviews, Dorfman has said that she feels the book uncovered layers the film didn’t. Looking at them back-to-back though, it feels like layers were lost with the book, which has even less reflection than the twelve-minute short. 

That’s maybe the book’s fatal flaw. 

Dorfman spends thirty-two of seventy-four pages detailing her experience of growing up with a big nose. In Flawed, that experience is tied to adulthood by virtue of the fact that the future of her relationship with “the nicest guy in the world” hinges on whether or not she can get past his profession, seemingly at odds with her greatest insecurity. It feels unearned, then, when she overcomes this in the space of a single page, simply by sending Dave a letter, telling him about her nose.

“My nose immediately stopped being my flaw. It became my nose again,” she writes in the book. 

That’s all very vaguely self-affirming, but if you tell anyone—toddler, teen, or adult—that their flaws make them who they are, they’re going to ask you how. And rightly so. The fact that this question goes unanswered feels like being brushed off by an adult who wishes you’d stop asking.  

There are positives. The story of Dorfman and Dave falling in love by sending hand-drawn postcards back and forth between Halifax and Toronto is sweet and tender. Her admiration for his work, when she realizesplastic surgery isn’t always rooted in vanity it is touching, as is his careful consideration of her feelings about the kids he works with. The illustrations have the same basic feel as the ink-and-watercolour sketches Dorfman made for her film, but they’re brighter, more polished, and more graphic. 

Overall though, Flawed hits on relatable topics—the awkwardness of adolescence, expectations on women, the value of personal character—but only scratches the surface of each one. A book about exteriors should go more than skin deep. 

On Second Thought
By Priscila Uppal (Mansfield Press)

Reviewed by Clea Roberts

Mortality is the bedrock on which poets write. It doesn’t matter what is laid overtop—love, anger, joy, grief—the fact that life is finite is what makes these human stations so meaningful and the poetic examination so essential.

In her posthumously published collection of poetry, On Second Thought, Priscila Uppal examines disconnections and connections between the body, the mind, and the spirit in the context of aging, illness, and death. With the vision of an architect, the nimbleness of a philosopher, and the hands-on practicality of a tradesperson, Uppal shows us where the connections between these points of being can fail and where reconnection can heal us.

Uppal’s poems (her second thoughts) open at mid-life and continue through illness and toward death. On Second Thought might be considered a memoir of illness, a travelogue of the shifting sands of grief, an orientation guide to the foothills of death, or a how-to guide for coping with the physical and psychic pain of leaving this world. But most importantly, her poems are a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be alive right now. Uppal approaches this hefty subject with her trademark humour and candour, never shying away from absurd or dark corners. 

Uppal wants her readers to think a little harder about who they are, their priorities, and their moral responsibilities as sentient beings. She wants us to see our blind spots, the automatic beliefs and ruminations that create pain, by showing us her own. The humility and fierce intelligence in Uppal’s poetry is heart-opening: “Maybe we should stop all this pretense,/ and I should do what I came here to do/ and drop to my knees” (“Spirit Tree”).

With untiring imagination throughout the collection, Uppal explores how the body, the mind, and the spirit don’t always play nicely in the cosmic sandbox. The body can be a site of silence and rebellion when the mind needs answers: “I ask my body to tell me things./ Important things. Sacred things./ I ask it to tell me where I went wrong,/ if I hurt it in this life or in the last” (“Life and Death”).

In response to the frustrations with the failing, incoherent body, the speaker turns to the rattled psyche for an explanation because “[c]ontrolling the body is only an illusion/ of controlling the body” (“If I Were a Cult Leader”).

How does the mind navigate aging, illness, and death without getting lost? Without losing its integrity and identity? Uppal writes eloquently on how we can struggle to frame our lives in difficult times:

Now that’s the way to handle a 
crisis without becoming a cliché.
Think of this time period as your
dark and stormy. Admit your thirst.
Unquenchable. Let the ice cubes
of your life melt indistinguishably
inside your bitter future’s glass. 

Turning away from the corporeal, Uppal also seeks answers from the spirit. But the spirit is revealed to be often vulnerable and unpredictable: “Even enlightenment is a trap./ Just when you think you’ve gotten/ in touch with your inner self it/ flees the scene in a cosmic hit-and-run” (“Spiritual Bypassing”). The body and mind are revealed as complicit in the spiritual struggle: “What I mean is that you breathe and so your lungs/ are already enlisted in this being/ nonbeing tug of war” (“There Are So Many Ways to Leave Other Than through the Door”).

The sophisticated art of On Second Thought is that while showing us the tension between the body, mind, and spirit, Uppal also shows us the connections between these disparate things, which gives the collection of poems a tensional integrity. And with this integrity, illuminated only as poetic attention can, there is healing—a kind of acceptance and closure achieved by the poems as a collection of perspectives on the trinity of body, mind, and spirit. Uppal wants us to know we will all die, but that right now, we are all very much alive:

You would wake up one day
and open your eyes
find yourself
thinking what a beautiful day
to die
and yet you would live.

And indeed, Uppal’s poems, like a transplant of some essential yet unnameable organ, live on in her readers.

This Wicked Tongue 
By Elise Levine (Biblioasis) 

Reviewed by Dory Cerny

It’s been more than twenty years since Toronto-born author Elise Levine entered the CanLit scene with her debut short story collection, Driving Men Mad. Accolades, critical praise, and two novels—Requests and Dedications (2003) and Blue Field (2017)—followed. With her latest offering, Levine returns to the short-
fiction format she claims as her true love.

The stories in This Wicked Tongue range from the sadly beautiful to the somewhat oblique. Among the former, the title entry is a fable-like story that takes the reader into the mind of a young woman in conversation with God as she embarks on a pilgrimage to become a religious hermit, following the violent death of her female lover. The standout piece “The Association” is another, in which eleven-year-old Martin strains against the confines of childhood as he contends with his parents’ divorce, teetering on a fine line between toddlerish tantrums and teen angst. Equally powerful but less straightforward offerings include “All We Did,” a close third-person snapshot of a woman slipping from ordinariness into a sorry state of abandonment, and “Public Storage, Available Now,” about a boundary-pushing relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her “Queen,” and the emotional push-pull of discovering pleasure, power, and pain. 

Throughout these stories, Levine employs a strong use of intricately woven visceral language that forces the reader at times to pause, regroup, and reread, but it is always worth the effort. Her best lines are evocative (“A cranky yawn stalks her throat and blooms like a weed in the back of her mouth”), darkly humorous (“He will go to MIT when he’s older where he will construct bots who wreak fuckery”), or play with language to great effect (“We were fudged, smuzzy–something we weren’t before”).

Though the language is highly stylized, the character-driven stories are largely accessible. In “Made Right Here,” a claustrophobic RCMP officer, trying to find his wife after they are separated during a cave tour in France, draws the reader in with his sincerity and bewilderment, even as we learn about the fault lines in the couple’s relationship and his role in causing the damage. Likewise, Martin of “The Association” is the kind of character you simultaneously want to hug and smack, thanks to his helplessness in the face of the choices made by the adults in his life and the burgeoning attitude those choices elicit in him. That Levine opts to revisit this character as an adult—successful, married, and torn over his husband’s desire to start a family—in the shorter but equally enjoyable “As Such” is a welcome surprise. 

While Levine’s writing is generally more successful when the author allows herself greater space in which to develop her characters, her playful and interesting use of language, paired with her innate sense of pacing, make her shorter pieces feel like little gems. As a whole, this is a strong collection from a writer who isn’t afraid to take chances or expose the less savoury sides of humanity.  

Posted on May 25, 2019 .